The Augusta-Richmond County Fire Department will keep its standing as a primary zone provider of ambulances – meaning it can control the county’s 911 calls – until at least Feb. 7, the East Central Georgia EMS Council ruled Thursday.
In a meeting at the Public Health office on North Leg Road, zoning subcommittee members recommended the full council postpone a decision on a request by Gold Cross EMS to effectively control 911 calls in Richmond County. By Georgia Law, the county’s 911 dispatch service must send all ambulance calls to the primary provider, whether a contract with the city exists or not. Because the fire department is a primary provider, the city controls 911 calls.
City Administrator Fred Russell attended the meeting because he was concerned that a private provider would be able to run the calls without government input.
“This would eliminate what little control we have through the contract,” he said. “To have somebody run 911 calls without input from the local government is borderline ridiculous.”
The ruling will give the fire department about 90 days to defend its primary provider status.
Jody Smitherman, an attorney with the city’s law department, said she will argue that the request to change the zone is not valid. According to the zoning rules, the request must present a significant improvement based on economy, efficiency and public welfare. Smitherman said the request takes the fire department’s two ambulances out of service, making fewer ambulances available to serve Richmond County.
If the fire department becomes a secondary provider, its ambulances cannot respond to a call without a direct request from the primary provider. Fire Chief Chris James said the ambulances are too expensive to staff if they are never used.
During the meeting, Mickey Moore with the Georgia Department of Public Health informed the subcommittee members they could not open the zone administratively, which they had previously thought possible. If the zone opens, all local ambulance companies are allowed to compete for provider status. Courtney Terwilliger, a subcommittee member and EMS Director at Emanuel County Medical Center, said he was not aware of that.
“If we do open zoning, it will not be an insignificant event,” he said. “It will be a difficult journey.”
Vince Brogdon, the CEO of Gold Cross, said at the meeting that Gold Cross stands behind its request. He said the fire department only runs one ambulance and should not be considered a primary zone provider.
The zone has been shared between the county and Gold Cross for the last seven years. When asked why Gold Cross is requesting the change now, Brogdon said he did not have a good answer for the timing.
During the meeting, Gary Pinard, the zoning chair and Screven County EMS coordinator, said he and Terwilliger met with Brogdon on Oct. 19 to discuss a letter about Gold Cross’ intentions sent to EMS Program Director Lawanna Mercer-Cobb in July. Terwilliger said he and Pinard had hoped the issue had been resolved.
When Brogdon told them it wasn’t, and Gold Cross wanted to move forward, the two men met with James. Terwilliger said it was apparent it was the first time James had seen the letter.
Smitherman requested the council table the discussion until the next meeting, in February, to give her and James time to prepare a rebuttal. Smitherman also pointed out that a representative from that county must be on the zoning committee when a zoning issue is on the table. Committee members said they were not aware of that rule. EMS council member and Augusta 911 Director Dominick Nutter was placed on the committee.
Dr. Phillip Coule, of the Medical College of Georgia Hospital, said he put in his resignation as the Regional EMS director effective Thursday so he could stand behind the fire department without a conflict of interest.
“This is a power play by Gold Cross,” he said. “The council made the right call. Decreasing ambulances is not in the public’s best interest.”
The zoning committee will meet again about two weeks before the Feb. 7 meeting to discuss the issue.